Have you heard about the #NotOnOurWatch movement of interrupting racism?
i have really enjoyed having some back and forth conversations with my friend Trevor [whose work you can see on his Swart Donkey blog] and this one we had in the last few weeks, that has now been converted to a blog post, was one of my favourite… just in terms of getting a conversation started and hopefully there is some food for thought in there for you:
I moved to London in 2008, but I got to come back to South Africa regularly. I don’t come back as often now, but when I do, I try stay as long as I can. I still feel deeply embedded because I spend so much time on Social Media and engaging with people who are living there. Living in London, and travelling gives me a different view of whats going on from people in the thick of it. All around the world, people are dealing with figuring out how to unravelling structural prejudice. One of the approaches you have taken is #NotOnMyWatch, can you explain what that is all about?
It started as #NotOnMyWatch and quickly became #NotOnOurWatch because of the obvious need for this to be a movement of people committing themselves to interrupting racism. Often something overt will happen in a restaurant or shopping centre and no-one interjects. Or else it might be more subtle like a racist joke at work or a prejudiced comment around the braai. What #NotOnOurWatch is all about is us as a nation committing to stepping gently but firmly into situation both online and offline where we feel the freedom to say, “That is not okay.” The idea is positive peer pressure. I have a saying that the ants always outnumber the crickets but it takes the ants to realise that en masse before any significant change actually happens. If one person steps into a situation it can be quite overwhelming but if three more people jump in as well then suddenly you have great potential for change.
I have often been in those sorts of situations. Usually in work contexts because that pushes me out of my normal social circles. So, I would be sitting with a bunch of financial advisers and one will say, ‘isn’t it great to be white and in Africa’. That isn’t even insulting anyone, but left me feeling really awkward. In a work context, you have to have a big ‘Bull Quota’ for all sorts of things you don’t tolerate from friends. With limits. Someone once came into a company I worked at and asked to be served by a white Financial Adviser rather than the person they were greeted by. The head of the company was called. He wrote out a cheque for the full amount the client had invested, came down and informed the individual that he was no longer a client. I love that story. What I worry about is aggressive community policing of behaviour may cause people to batten down the hatches. To form little laagers of prejudice. Shouldn’t we be reaching out to these people someone rather than shutting them down? How do we help people deal with rather than suppress their challenges?
I really love that story – if only more of us could choose to put our money or the bigger picture where our mouth is. I think there is a combination of ways of dealing with people to be looked at. I spend a whole lot of time reasoning with people on social media – throwing out the line and trying to slowly reel them in – and some take a lot longer than others. But then there are those who are entrenched in their racism and unlikely to change [unless something huge happens somehow – i do believe God has the power to change anyone]. In those cases i do think there are times to take a harder approach. i believe that there is such a thing as a positive form of intolerance. People are always calling for tolerance but if you like things to be generally clean then you display an intolerance of litter. If you want a country that is moving forwards and growing then I believe we have to show an intolerance of racist behaviour. More gentler means when things are subtle or it feels like people can be changed, but at the same time not allowing racism to go on until such time as it can be changed.
My worry is that we alienate too many people. I feel like there is a wave of positive liberal progress sweeping the world, but that there is a last ditch push back happening. We all come from prejudiced backgrounds. Our ignorance has slowly been chipped away at, but in different ways. Someone can be Sexist and on the receiving end of Racism and not be able to recognise it. Others can be generally kind and loving, and then also horribly homophobic. We somehow see the faults in others much more clearly. My concern with aggressive community policing is that we stop looking internally. We see it as a civilising mission. I don’t know of many mission ideas where there wasn’t an inherent belief on the part of the missionary of superior beliefs. That is why I think relationships should come first. Building friendships with those we disagree with rather than shouting at them. Listening first. I don’t personally know anyone I think is inherently bad. We all have some sort of insecurity or back story to our bull. It is normally friends who manage to iron out our rough bits.
Friends ironing out our rough bits s great [what book is that from?] but i don’t think this is an either/or scenario. And i definitely think it IS a case of being able to look at Racism and Not Racism and definitively say that one of those is superior. i don’t think there is a problem with that. For us to ever improve we have to make the judgement that the place we’re heading towards is better than the place we were at. And we DEFINITELY need to keep looking at the mirror. The whole “getting woke” thing starts with a self realisation and moves out from there. These are ways i realised i used to think and act wrong and this is what I am working on – who is with me? While friends [if they’re actively engaged as many friends are not because we don’t typically like to rock boats or receive criticism well] can help iron out bits, for some people I believe there needs to be a more dramatic coming up against a brick wall of “This is not okay!” and for many people that is the initial turning point – I have seen this on a number of occasions – with friends being left the bulk of the work of the ironing after that has taken place. The end of slavery was a huge “This is not okay” moment that took a while to filter down for some people, but it certainly wasn’t a friends sharpening iron Kumbaya around the campfire moment…
The end of Slavery is a great example. It is one of humanities greatest triumphs and yet it is a dark and fuzzy story. The British Empire was the key champion in ending slavery, but they did it in part through another great evil – Colonialism. They didn’t come in and build relationships. They didn’t come in and see people and see the strength, knowledge, resilience and culture that existed. They saw what they considered barbarians. The supporters of Rhodes saw a great liberal who was bringing civilisation. A world under the good and christian Queen Victoria. They didn’t see their own blind spots. Their own prejudice. We may be able to look at Racism and Not Racism and say one is definitely better. A Racist may look at Homophobia and Not Homophobia and say one is definitely better. Etc. Etc. When someone who is homophobic says #NotOnOurWatch about racism, it is awkward. The great thing with friendships as opposed to dreams of where we want the world to be is the friendship has value in and of itself.
i don’t see why a homophobic person saying #NotOnOurWatch about racism is awkward at all. What needs to be worked out in their life is their homophobia but that doesn’t mean their stance on racism can’t be celebrated. Each of us is flawed and if we have to wait til we get everything right to work together on a project then no projects are going to happen. Many of the big leaders we look up to [Luther, Martin Luther King Jnr, even Desmond Tutu and the money struggles he speaks openly about in one of his books] had huge flaws and that doesn’t mean we discount their leadership or mentoring. But we do need to call out where they got it wrong at the same time: “Great work on exposing church hypocrisy Luther but your attitude towards Jewish people needs some work.” And so on. We can celebrate the end of slavery at the same time as mourning the colonialism that accompanied it. The main focus of my work in combatting racism in South Africa today is walking alongside people and gently coaching them towards the start line or further along the race track [ha!] than they are, BUT a side focus is gathering a mass of positive peer pressure to gently but firmly let those who still hold on to racist views and actions know that it is not okay and we won’t stand by and let them continue in that.
I understand that view, and I think you are brave. Our mutual friend Sindile also gets stuck in on lots of issues. You have my full support in the work you are doing. I guess I am just trying to be more sneaky about it. To use Shaka terminology, the ‘Bull’s Horn Formation’. Some can attack from the front, but I am going to try running round the sides. Truth is I think I have a lot to learn from racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, fundamentalist, agist, nationalists. I worry about how hard it is to become friends with them. How little common ground I can see. I worry about how blind I am to my own issues because all my friends are like me. It feels like I can get to the stage where we can chip away at each others problems, but only if I hold back on the punches and witch hunts. Instead of a rock thrown, perhaps a beer or a coffee would be a better weapon.
I don’t really like your terminology of ‘rock thrown’ cos i don’t think that’s fair. The way i see it is that there are people throwing rocks and we are saying to them, “This is not a rock throwing zone.” We might say that over a coffee or a beer and we might say that by staring them down in the eyes and just saying, “No, you don’t get to do that any more.” I don’t believe in using violence to show people that using violence is wrong [don’t get me started on the death penalty]. Having said that i do like what you are suggesting in terms of looking for what we can learn from people we disagree strongly with. This social media generation seems to have an all-or-nothing approach to many things which is often super unhelpful. I definitely prefer Both/And over Either/Or if it makes sense and it often does. What is here that is helpful for me to absorb/learn from/grow/build? And what is here that i should avoid/ignore/call out/retreat from?
What are your thoughts on this? Is there a space for interrupting racism or do you think we should rather be exclusively having bridge-building coffee sessions? Share your thoughts in the comments.